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Recovery Without Feeling

The economic calamity is abating according to Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve Chief. What else could he say? But it is hard to be optimistic if you are a small businessman in Florida. This doesn’t feel like a “recovery” at all. “For rent” signs on commercial real estate are multiplying. The force of this Great Recession or Little Depression, as the case may be, is turning the scrubbed cheeks of Chamber of Commerce ‘visionaries’ unusual shades of pale.

A first step forward would be for Chamber of Commerce members to return their membership cards. Why? Because the Chamber and its associated lobbyists serve their constituents very poorly. In brief, the Chamber of Commerce acts as though all we need to do is wait a little while and the good old days will reappear– poof– like pigeons from a top hat. In the meantime, their conception is to find distractions scaled to their constituents’ anxiety. That is what the huffing and puffing against Florida Hometown Democracy is about. FHD is the proposal for a constitutional amendment in the 2010 state-wide election that would require direct vote by the electorate on changes to local growth plans. The Chamber is bellowing– soon to be followed by ugly, lying mailers– that the current economic catastrophe was caused by too much regulation, by too much interference by citizens, and too much of everything but their own culpability.

Here are a few examples of how badly things are going for the Chamber. The first is reflected by one of the state’s largest and most politically influential corporations: Florida Power and Light. FPL– a proxy for the Chamber– is seeking a $900 million rate increase from Florida’s recession weary consumers and state officials. A cacophony of bad news trails its drive for more electric power capacity like a string of tin cans. Some FPL’s employees are charged with conversations with regulators despite law prohibiting private exchanges. These conversations were enabled by turning off Blackberry tracking features. Also, FPL refuses to reveal the number of employees receiving gilded compensation. It is stonewalling the public on disclosure of wetlands destruction. It has been bullying all sides of the regulatory world to obtain new nuclear power at sea level adjacent to two national parks, including high voltage transmission lines– one in Everglades National Park– that are opposed by every community along the way and rock mining millions of cubic yards in lands needed to help save Biscayne National Park. Embarrassing disclosures by a former, top employee raises the issue of safety in its existing nuclear operation at Turkey Point.

The Chamber of Commerce basks in FPL’s glow. How this helps the Chamber’s small business members is anyone’s guess. The same divide was apparent at the national U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week when another very large utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, walked from its membership because the Chamber continues to maintain a prehistoric antagonism to government intervention in the matter of reversing climate change. In his Sunday column for The New York Times, Tom Freidman wrote, “Instead of a strategic response, too many of our politicians are still trapped in their own dumb-as-we-wanna-be bubble, where we’re always No. 1, and where the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, having sold its soul to the old coal and oil industries, uses its influence to prevent Congress from passing legislation to really spur renewables. Hat’s off to the courageous chairman of Pacific Gas and Electric, Peter Darbee, who last week announced that his huge California power company was quitting the chamber because of its “obstructionist tactics.” All shareholders in America should ask their C.E.O.’s why they still belong to the chamber.” (The New Sputnik, New York Times, Sept. 26, 2009)

With Florida Hometown Democracy, the state Chamber darkly suggests that growth would grind to a halt in Florida if the ballot measure passes, as though a citizen’s initiative could do more than Florida’s business organizations have done to foul their own nest. Just like the US Chamber with global warming, with Florida Hometown Democracy the Chamber is a house divided against the interests of its own members.

The breach is reflected in recent efforts by Gov. Charlie Crist to scoop up campaign contributions from developers and land speculators who got rich during the development boom and are hoarding cash, waiting for the miracle to come. Through their proxies at the Florida Chamber and in the Florida legislature, the Growth Machinists prevailed on Gov. Crist to sign into law new legislation, “The Growth Anywhere Act”. The 2009 Chamber-flavored measure was vehemently opposed by every newspaper editorial board in the state. In signing the measure, Gov. Crist planned to box out his primary challenger, former House majority leader Marco Rubio, from the financial support of Miami’s Cuban American developers whose contributions propelled another governor, Jeb Bush, to the governor’s mansion a decade ago.

The new legislation eviscerates what is left of a central, state authority to supervise and enforce the key provisions of growth management, especially those large scale developments that are now morphed into morbid ghost suburbs throughout Florida, riddled with foreclosures and weeds. Gov. Crist, who is running for US Senate as a moderate Republican, expected that there would be no objection from campaign contributors who are Republican developers, who enforce a unified front at the Chamber of Commerce– against such radical notions as Florida Hometown Democracy– and also maintain order in local city and county commissions.

But almost as soon as the Crist law was passed, a posse of local jurisdictions sued. Today, 18 local governments want out. “The suit attacks the new law on a couple of fronts by saying it improperly encompasses multiple issues and amounts to an unfunded mandate prohibited under the Florida Constitution. … The plan removes transportation concurrency requirements in the state’s dense urban land areas — tracts with an average of at least 1,000 people per square mile or in counties with populations of at least 1 million. The provision would directly affect eight of the state’s largest counties and nearly 250 municipalities across the state. The measure exempts from the development of regional impact process those dense urban areas or parcels classified as urban infill, community redevelopment or those that are part of an urban service area. It also creates a two-year extension of projects that are otherwise compliant with local and state permits.” (“Locals file suit against growth management bill, News Service of Florida, July 8, 2009)

Let’s parse this out: the Chamber of Commerce wields its influence to maintain a Republican, red state legislature that consistently votes to eliminate regulations and barriers to growth– using the economic calamity to argue against stoplights on the way speeding recklessly back into the same patterns of development that contributed to the crisis in the first place. What the Republicans want in Florida is being rejected by local governments that are also Republican and mistrust their own capacity to resist corrupting influences of lobbyists absent intervention by the state. It is just another aspect of phenomena examined by James Howard Kunstler in his powerful blog, “Clusterfuck Nation” who begins on a parallel track. “It was the worthlessness of the tradable securitized debt associated with all those overpriced (and overvalued) chipboard and vinyl houses, smeared recklessly over the American landscape, that started all the trouble in the first place. And it is our inability to come to grips with that underlying catastrophe that prolongs the resolution of the still-florid banking crisis — since the federal government is doing everything possible to prop up the failed capital equation of terminal suburbia, and to deny the obsolescence of that version of the American Dream and all the mechanisms for delivering it.”

Local legislators punted every major decision to zone new, unneeded development in farmland, wetlands, or near wellfields to the state. They did what the Chamber wanted, what the Farm Bureau wanted, they did what the developers and bankers wanted: they didn’t have to make tough decisions, then, playing along side their campaign funders in the reckless miscalculation of risk, and they don’t have to make tough decisions now, because they are insulated by a permanent incumbency. The big campaign contributors locally– the lobbyists who control city and county halls, the builders like US Century and local bankers, often one and the same,– don’t have to shut down like ordinary homeowners under water in their mortgages.

Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas put it succinctly: “The problem is that we have been addicted to the cheap drug of growth for so long, nobody can think of an alternative. When 20 people a day are moving into Florida, build 30 homes a day. When 20 people a day are moving out of Florida, build 30 homes a day. The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida are complete frauds. They spin yarns about economic diversity, about improving the quality of life, about investing in schools and universities to upgrade our work force. Then come crunch time, it is back to build-build-build. They make this sound perfectly rational, while painting supporters of Hometown Democracy as crazed extremists.”

In this “recovery”, there has been little penalty for the entitled, no reform of regulations or the institutions whose reckless behavior enriched a few at the expense of many. No mea culpas, no admissions of error; just “dancing with the stars” like the former “Hammer” of the U.S. Congress, Tom Delay, who now matches vanity to oblivious on the popular FOX TV reality show. Once feared and reviled, the man who created the K Street Project is now a pussycat in cushioned soles. In Delay’s re-emergence from scandal there is a subtle message: let the people take up the fox trot or the tango, too– all dance while investors scoop failed debt for pennies on the dollar that their bankers sold as assets to the federal government for fifty cents. It is legal, stupid, and comes with a ticket to the next Chamber luncheon at Parrot Jungle. All will return to ‘normal’. Nails guns will not be denied. They will chatter happily and particle board will fly off the racks in the new, rapturous dawn.

Under these conditions, the change at hand is the one that awakens Chamber of Commerce members to the fact the organization to which they belong does not serve their interests. These days, what the Chamber represents by way of growth-at-any-cost is wrong for Florida and, in the case of climate change, wrong for the nation. The Age of Stupid had better be over. The best Chamber members could do is turn those membership cards in, now.

ALAN FARAGO lives in south Florida. He can be reached at: afarago@bellsouth.net

More articles by:

Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

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